A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Part-Song

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From volume 2 of the work.

PART-SONG. (Ger. Mehrstimmiges Lied; Fr. Chanson à parties.) A composition for at least three voices in harmony, and without accompaniment. This definition must of course exclude many compositions frequently styled part-songs, and perhaps so named by their composers, but which would be better described under some other heading. For example, the two-part songs of Mendelssohn, Rubinstein, and other modern musicians (Zweistimmige Lieder) are, more properly speaking, duets. [See Duet, Trio, Quartet.] The term 'part song' will here be employed exclusively as the proper signification of one of the three forms of secular unaccompanied choral music; the others being the madrigal and the glee. Unlike either of its companions, its etymology is plain and simple, being neither of obscure origin, as in the instance of the Madrigal, nor of misleading sense, as in that of the Glee.

Before proceeding to enquire into the origin and growth of the part-song, it will be as well to note the special characteristics by which it is distinguished from other forms of composition. The words to which the music is set may be either amatory, heroic, patriotic, didactic, or even quasi-sacred in character, e.g. Mendelssohn's 'Morgengebet' (op. 48, no. 5), and 'Sonntagsmorgen' (op. 77, no. 1); this wide choice of subjects giving the composer scope for variety in his music which the somewhat rigid form of the composition might otherwise seem to deny. Rhyming verse[1] is all-but essential, and though the question of metre is to a certain extent an open one, iambics are employed in the vast majority of instances. The first requisite of the music is well-defined rhythm, and the second unyielding homophony. The phrases should be scarcely less measured and distinct than those of a Chorale, though of course in style the music may be lively or sedate, gay or pathetic. Tunefulness in the upper part or melody is desirable, and the attention should not be withdrawn by elaborate devices of an imitative or contrapuntal nature in the harmonic substructure. It is obvious that if these principles are to be observed in the composition of a part-song—and any wide divergence from them would invalidate the claim of a piece to the title—it must, as a work of art, be considered as distinctly inferior to either the madrigal or the glee. And it is worthy of surprise and perhaps of regret that while the forms of instrumental composition are constantly showing a tendency to move in the direction of increased elaboration, choral music should exhibit a decided retrogression from the standard attained in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has even been observed by those who regard with some distrust, if not with actual dislike, the immense and ever-increasing influence of Germany in modern musical impulse, that the existing popularity of the part-song, in so far as it is detrimental to the interests of higher forms of vocal music, is one of the baneful products of this Teutonic supremacy. But the statement that the part-song is fundamentally German in its inception must be accepted with considerable reservation. If we go back three centuries, that is to the zenith of the madrigalian era, we shall find examples perfect in every respect except in name; and it is to Italian composers that we must look for the earliest specimens of the genus. The best-known of Costanzo Festa's madrigals, 'Down in a flowery vale,' is to all intents and purposes a part-song, allowance being made for certain peculiarities of tonality and rhythm common to music of that period. Gastoldi, who flourished a few years later, has left similar examples in his 'Balletti da suonare,' two of which in their English versions—'Maidens fair of Mantua's city' and 'Soldiers, brave and gallant be' are popular to this day. Thomas Morley seems to have been the earliest among English composers to take advantage of this style of vocal writing. His canzonets and ballets, written in obvious imitation of those of Gastoldi, include perfect examples of the part-song as we understand it. 'My bonny lass she smileth' and 'Now is the month of Maying,' maintain their position in the repertory of choral societies by reason of their crisp, well-marked rhythm, and simple pleasing melody. John Douland (or Dowland), whose genius was more tender and lyrical than that of Morley, has left some exquisite specimens of the amatory part-song in his 'Awake, sweet love,' 'Come again, sweet love,' and 'Now, now I needs must part.' Compared with these the canzonets of Thomas Ford, who was contemporary with Douland, are greatly inferior in grace, subtlety of expression, and pure poetic feeling. Thomas Ravenscroft and Weelkes, among other composers of the madrigalian epoch, may be included among those who contributed to a form of art too generally accepted as the musical product of the 19th century. The blighting influence of the Puritans proved fatal to every description of musical work in England, and when secular part-music again occupied the attention of composers, it took the form of the glee rather than that of the madrigal or the part-song. In the works of many composers between 1650 and 1750, we may of course discover isolated pieces in which some of the characteristics of the partsong are present. This may be said of Purcell's 'Come if you dare' and 'Come unto these yellow sands,' and of Handel's 'See the conquering hero comes,' to quote some of the best-known instances. But practically the 18th century may be passed over entirely in the consideration of our present subject, and the impression generally prevalent that the part-song is of wholly modern growth is explained by the intervention of this long and barren epoch. Another impetus from abroad was required, and eventually it came, only not as before from Italy, but from Germany. The latter country, as rich in national and traditionary music as England is poor, had, in its Volkslieder of ancient origin, and in the almost equally representative songs of Arndt, Körner, and others, the foundation on which to build ready to hand. [See Volkslied.] The works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven[2] include very few compositions that may be rightly placed under the heading of part-songs; but that most distinctively German composer, Weber, has produced some spirited examples in his 'Bright sword of liberty,' 'Lutzow's wild hunt,' and the Hunting Chorus in 'Der Freischütz.' Schubert was more prolific in this branch of art. The catalogue of his compositions contains some 50 pieces of the kind, of which 22 are for unaccompanied male voices, and only two for mixed voices. Many of the former display his genius in a favourable light, and but for the fact that our choral societies are mostly of mixed voices, would doubtless be better known than they are in this country.[3] The establishment of Liedertafeln and Gesangvereine, answering in some respects to our older glee clubs, went on rapidly about the period of which we are speaking, and of course led to the production of a large quantity of part-music, most of which it must be confessed had but little value, the verses being doggrel and the music infinitely inferior to that of the best English glee-writers. The exceptions noted above were not more than sufficient to prove the rule, until the advent of another great genius, whose works of every description were destined to exercise an almost overwhelming influence over musical thought and action in this country. We refer to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. It is not too much to say that his 'songs for singing in the open air,' so redolent of blue sky and sunshine and nature's freshness, worked a revolution, or, to speak more accurately, inaugurated a revival, in the choral music of England, the influence of which is ever widening and extending. The appearance of these delightful works was coeval with the commencement of that movement which has since resulted in the establishment of choral societies and more modest singing classes in every district throughout the length and breadth of the land. The study of these fascinating little gems led to the search after similar treasures of home manufacture which had been half forgotten under the accumulated dust of centuries, and it also induced musicians without number to essay a style of composition in which success seemed to be a comparatively easy matter. For the space of a generation the part-song has occupied a position second only to the ballad as the expression of musical ideas in a form suited to the popular taste. Before proceeding to take note of those who have followed most successfully Mendelssohn's lead, it is necessary to revert for an instant to Germany. Robert Schumann wrote about a dozen Lieder for male voices, and nearly double that number for mixed voices, but the strange prejudice which so long existed against this composer has even to the present time proved fatal to the popularisation of these works, which deserve to be in the repertory of every tolerably advanced choral society. Less abounding in geniality and inviting melody than those of Mendelssohn, they breathe the very spirit of poetry, and are instinct with true German feeling. Of other foreign composers who have contributed towards the enrichment of this form of art, we may mention Ferdinand Hiller, Robert Franz, Müller, Seyfried, Werner, Kücken, Franz Abt, Truhn, Otto, Raff, and Brahms. In England part-songmaking proceeds apace, and no material modification of the Mendelssohnian model is as yet apparent, nor have many of the examples by the composers just enumerated attained any general popularity among us. But several of our native musicians have succeeded in rivalling Mendelssohn himself, at least temporarily, in the affections of the public. Sterndale Bennett left but three partsongs, 'Sweet stream that winds,' 'Of all the arts,' and 'Come live with me,' of which the last is an established favourite. R. L. de Pearsall, whose madrigals combine so artistically the quaintness of the old style with modern grace and elegance, has also written some charming part-songs, of which 'The Hardy Norseman' and 'O who will o'er the downs so free,' are perhaps the most popular, but by no means the best. His song in ten parts, 'Sir Patrick Spens,' is a wonderfully spirited and effective piece; and for genuine humour 'Who shall win my lady fair,' may pair off with Ravenscroft's quaint old ditty, 'In the merry spring.' In a quieter vein and beautifully melodious are 'Why with toil,' 'When last I strayed,' 'Purple glow,' and 'Adieu, my native shore.' Henry Smart wrote several pleasing pieces of this kind—of which 'The waves' reproof' is one of the finest—but he failed as regards distinctiveness of character, and it is unnecessary to quote any others as being representative of the species. Several living composers have achieved excellent results. Mr. Joseph Barnby's 'Sweet and low' is perhaps the best of the many settings of Tennyson's words, and Mr. Henry Leslie's 'The Pilgrims' and 'Resurgam' are exquisite examples of the sacred part-song. Ciro Pinsuti, who may be almost claimed as an English composer, has contributed some valued items to the national collection. His 'Spring Song' is a successful imitation of the Mendelssohn Frühlingslieder, and for delicacy and sentiment 'In this hour of softened splendour' deserves high commendation. Mr. [../Sullivan, Arthur|Arthur Sullivan]]'s 'The long day closes' is in a similar vein; 'Joy to the victors' and 'O hush thee, my babie' are only two out of many bright and tuneful songs. Yet more spirited are Mr. Walter Macfarren's 'You stole my love' and 'Up, up, ye dames,' while the compositions of Mr. Samuel Reay are on the whole more tender and graceful. Mr. J. L. Hatton has devoted himself extensively to this field of musical labour, some of his compositions for men's voices, such as 'The Tar's song,' 'When evening's twilight,' 'Summer eve,' and 'Beware,' having gained extensive popularity. The Shakespeare songs of Professor G. A. Macfarren must not fail to be noted, and among other composers who have written part-songs of more or less merit we may mention Sir Julius Benedict, Dr. Henry Hiles, Mr. J. B. Calkin, and Mr. A. R. Gaul. The growth of Orpheonist Societies in France has of course resulted in the composition of a large quantity of unaccompanied part-music for male voices, to which the majority of the best musicians have contributed. These works are generally more elaborate than English part-songs, and the dramatic element frequently enters prominently into them. [See Orphéon.]

It only remains to say a few words as to the performance of the part-song. Like the madrigal, and unlike the glee, the number of voices to each part may be multiplied within reasonable limits. But as the chief desideratum is a strict feeling of unity among the performers the best effects can be obtained from a carefully selected and well balanced choir of 150 to 300 voices. The part-song being essentially a melody with choral harmony, the upper part is in one sense the most important. But it must not be allowed to preponderate to the weakening of the harmonic structure. On the other hand, the almost inevitable absence of melody, and of phrases of special interest and importance in the middle and lower parts, may tend to engender a feeling of carelessness among those who have to sing these parts, which the conductor must be quick to detect lest the ensemble be marred thereby. The idea of independence or individuality, desirable enough in contrapuntal and polyphonic music, must here yield itself to the necessity for machine-like precision and homogeneity. When all has been said, the highest qualities of musicianship cannot find fitting exercise in the part-song. But art may be displayed alike in the cabinet picture and in the more extended canvas, and the remark will apply equally to thevariousphasesofmusical thought and action. Of the many collections of Part-songs we may mention Orpheus; and Novello's Part-song Book, in two series, containing in all 338 compositions.

[ H. F. F. ]

  1. Horace's Ode 'Integer vitæ' has been set by Flemming (Orpheus, No. 3), and 'Faune, Nympharum' by Mr. Hullah.
  2. 'Rasch tritt der Tod,' a 8-part song drawn from him by the sudden death of a friend, is Beethoven's only experiment in this direction.
  3. His setting of 'Wer nur die Sehnsucht kennt,' as a quintet for male voices, is a composition of astonishing beauty and pathos.